Reds on the Outside Looking in Again as Playoffs Begin

The commissioner of baseball has for years trumpeted the game's "incredible renaissance." The first recorded instance probably goes back to about 1995, when baseball returned from a player's s

Oct 6, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

The commissioner of baseball has for years trumpeted the game's "incredible renaissance." The first recorded instance probably goes back to about 1995, when baseball returned from a player's strike to puny crowds.

But it had to happen some time, once the gremlins stopped fooling with gimmicks like excessive home runs and put the focus back on pennant races. Baseball finally is having its incredible renaissance this season, which turns to an intriguing, wide-open round of playoffs this week.

Nearly half of the Major League clubs, 14 of 30, drew 30,000 fans per game this year. With a week left, 13 clubs still eyed the playoff lottery, a proven hit-or-miss crack at everything. One by one, five of them peeled away until the Houston Astros completed the playoff field Sunday afternoon, ending a 36-10 finish that carried them past the collapsing Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants to the National League wild card.

Back when the Astros were 46-50, the season was lost, and that was before left-hander Andy Pettitte went on the disabled list for good. The Astros had deflated their fans, who thought surely this would be their year after signing Pettitte and Roger Clemens.

Firing manager Jimy Williams mid-season was an obvious move, but replacing him with Phil Garner wasn't an obviously good move.

Garner, who starred as a player in Houston, didn't star in managerial gigs with Milwaukee and Detroit. And no one understood why the Astros hung on to Carlos Beltran with the season gone. The trade smoke ended with them basically swapping Richard Hidalgo for Beltran and losing their top reliever, Octavio Dotel, in the bargain.

It's not like the Astros to tie themselves up like that. In this case, the soundness of their general approach bailed them out when they faltered. Beltran seized his escape from Kansas City and hit 23 homers for the Astros, who acquired him right before the All-Star break. Then along came Brad Lidge, who blew hitters away in the ninth inning for six weeks. Lidge gave the Astros their edge against the Cubs and Giants, who died from shaky bullpens.

The wild card worked this time. Sometimes a wild card wins the World Series and you can say it worked in retrospect, but this time it truly gave competitive life to good clubs that would have been long gone to a freakishly good division champ like the St. Louis Cardinals. The Astros needed 92 wins to outlast the Cubs and Giants. That will win a lot of divisions.

According to form, the American League is wide open among four outstanding ball clubs with playoff experience, while the Cardinals were easily the NL's best club in every way. Check the statistics, and you'll see the Cardinals near the top of everything. The Reds saw what the Cardinals did to them this year, and the Cardinals weren't any easier on anyone else except the Astros, who won 10 of their 18 meetings.

Sadly, Reds fans don't even share the excitement of just missing the playoffs. The local nine is in historic doldrums, clocking in four straight losing seasons for the first time in 50 years. The future is framed by questions that don't promise lucid answers, such as whether or not the Reds will significantly increase their player payroll now that a reported study has named Carl Lindner the second wealthiest baseball club owner, trailing another poor-mouthing Midwesterner, Minnesota's Carl Pohlad.

It's pretty nasty when fans feel like they have to suggest trading off the best player for strengthening two positions. It is to be hoped the Reds will at least be serious enough to retain Sean Casey and Danny Graves, but we'll just have to see. At the same time, they could move some furniture and add a pitcher or two. The popular move is to deal an excess outfielder for a pitcher, but that's a lot easier said than done.

The Reds basically went into the season throwing their stuff at the wall to see what would stick. They come out of it with a good, general approach to baseball, absolutely maximizing their guns. Whatever one says about another losing season, you can't say the Reds went belly up.

Without an established starting pitcher, rookie manager Dave Miley still won 76 games — the success story of the season for this ball club. Miley's great minor league career obviously was no fluke. A rookie manager wins 76 games with 69 quality starts? Imagine what he could do with a staff that's just a little worse than average.

Just for one measurement of the Reds' poverty, Paul Wilson led the club with 16 quality starts, 33rd in the National League. On average, each of the 16 NL clubs should have two of the top 32 and the Reds don't have any. Somehow, the Reds came within a few hops of breaking even.

For the first time in years, though, the Reds began to at least look like they're making pitching. It kind of looks like the making of sausage or legislation — painful and ugly. Kids get slapped around. We didn't get to see a young Dwight Gooden this year, but pitchers usually break in like this and we might be in for another year of ugliness before any of these youngsters becomes a reliable big league winner.

Between them, Brandon Claussen, Josh Hancock, Aaron Harang, Jose Acevedo and Luke Hudson went to the post 86 times, put up 34 quality starts and redeemed 26 wins. It's not especially fun to watch, but it's better than watching someone else's rejects do it. If everyone's a little better next year, that could set the Reds toward a winning season.

But some of these young pitchers will regress, and it sure would be nice if the Reds could add a couple pitchers. Just two guys who could be No. 2 starters on any other club would make a big difference. But that seems like asking for a lot around here.

The Reds retain, at least for the time being, a core of players who can win. It begins with Casey and four outfielders, Graves as the closer and Barry Larkin as shortstop emeritus. The Larkin question, re-opened when the veteran decided it's not time to retire, should be an easy one for the Reds and a tough one for Larkin, who will want some determinate idea of the club's direction as he considers the setting for his final season.

Clearly, the Reds still haven't found an improvement on nor a replacement for Larkin, who will be 41 next season. As the Reds aren't going to be competitive without additional pitching and a good stick at third base, he might discern that the Reds won't make those moves and choose a contending situation.

Another Red whose demise was once grossly exaggerated, that of broadcaster Joe Nuxhall, thankfully won't really be leaving, but he deserves this victory lap anyway as he closes out 37 years in the radio booth. Nuxhall cut down to just the home games this season, and his 76-year-old voice hasn't been this good in years. It would suit a lot of people just fine if they let the old left-hander do the games he wants next year and leave it at that.

The Reds have a few people going for them. Larkin's good. Keep him. Nuxhall is good. Keep him, too. Casey and Graves are good, so they should be kept.

The Reds have a real short list of real good people, and fears persist that the list will keep getting shorter. It needs to grow a lot longer before the Reds are still playing this late in the year.